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Ukraine live briefing: Russian fighters claim to be closing in on Bakhmut; Biden and Scholz to meet


KHARKIV OBLAST, Ukraine — Fierce fighting is raging for the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. The head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group claimed Friday that his fighters have “practically surrounded” the city, but a Ukrainian defender told The Washington Post that Ukrainian forces still control it and have not been ordered to retreat. Russian forces are “constantly hitting the city randomly with artillery, grads and mortars,” the soldier said.

Russian forces have fought for months to seize Bakhmut — which would give Moscow its first symbolic victory in months and a broader foothold in the Donbas region, even though military experts say it is of limited strategic value.

In Washington, President Biden will welcome German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to the White House on Friday for a working visit, which will involve discussions about Ukraine. The two leaders are expected to share notes on their recent meetings with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters.

Here’s the latest on the war and its impact across the globe.

Key developments

  • Wagner Group boss Yevgeniy Prigozhin said “the pincers are closing” on Bakhmut, in a video posted Friday on Telegram in which he claimed to be speaking from a rooftop in the city. He paraded three men who appeared to be captured local fighters on camera and said Ukrainian forces should withdraw to “give them a chance to leave the city.” The Washington Post could not independently verify Prigozhin’s claims to have “practically surrounded” Bakhmut. However, the Institute for the Study of War, citing geolocated footage, said Thursday that pro-Kremlin forces have made gains in areas near Bakhmut.
  • A Ukrainian soldier defending Bakhmut said enemy forces are “right now on three sides trying to get to us,” with some of the heaviest fighting striking the city’s south. Yuriy Syrotyuk, who is stationed with Ukraine’s Fifth Independent Assault Brigade, dismissed Prigozhin’s claims as “boasting.” In a phone interview Friday, Syrotyuk added that it does not feel as though the situation has significantly changed in the last 24 hours, and that his last meal — chicken strips and rice — was even served hot, a sign of relative normalcy.
  • Biden and Scholz may discuss China’s potential to supply weapons to Russian forces in Ukraine during their Friday meeting, Kirby said. “I certainly would expect … in the context of talking about what’s going on in Ukraine, that the issue of third-party support to Russia could come up,” he told reporters. “But I don’t want to get ahead of where we are here. We haven’t seen the Chinese make this decision.”
  • Kicking Russia out of the Group of 20 nations would be a mistake, Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said Friday as a high-level meeting of G-20 foreign ministers drew to a close in New Delhi. “We have to keep ways of talking, or at least listening,” Borrell said. He noted that while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had walked out of a G-20 meeting in Indonesia last year after Russia was criticized for the war, he had at least stayed and listened this time. Russia was suspended from the Group of Eight following its initial invasion of Crimea in 2014.
  • Lavrov was laughed at after saying Moscow was the victim, not the aggressor, in the Ukraine war. “The war was launched against us,” he said Friday during a conference in New Delhi, prompting a burst of guffaws from the audience of academics, government officials and business executives. However, Lavrov also drew strong applause when he accused critics of hypocrisy and pointed out the U.S. role in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Battlefield updates

  • The United States set to announce additional military aid for Ukraine on Friday, according to spokesman Kirby. The arms package will likely include ammunition for existing systems. Reuters reported it could be worth $400 million. So far, the United States has provided total military assistance of at least $24.9 billion to Ukraine since the war began, according to the State Department. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia noted the U.S. policy to “increase arms supplies to Ukraine itself and to persuade its subordinates in Europe … to increase similar supplies.” He warned that such a move would only “make this conflict more protracted and with more unfortunate consequences.”
  • A Russian anti-Putin group fighting on Ukraine’s side claimed responsibility for an attack in Russia’s western Bryansk region, which Russian officials said left two people dead. The Russian Volunteer Corps said it carried out Thursday’s attack. Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed Ukraine and described it as a “terrorist attack.” Ukrainian officials have denied involvement. Russia’s Federal Security Service, the FSB, released what it claimed to be footage of the attack on Friday, appearing to show a vehicle riddled with bullet holes and the bodies of two individuals. The Washington Post could not independently verify the footage.
  • The Wagner mercenary group is stepping up recruitment efforts at sports clubs throughout Russia, according to a statement on founder Prigozhin’s Telegram channel. “This effort likely represents a youth-targeted expansion of ongoing Wagner recruitment efforts,” the Institute for the Study of War said.

Global impact

  • The war in Ukraine is not distracting the United States from its challenges in Asia, Blinken said Friday. “Not only are we not distracted, on the contrary, we’re more deeply engaged than ever,” he said during a panel discussion in India’s capital. Blinken made the comment during a talk with other members of the so-called Quad — a group consisting of Australia, Japan, India and the United States. Even though Washington has spent billions of dollars in support of Ukraine and provided a massive arsenal of weaponry, Blinken insisted the United States could “run and chew gum at the same time,” reiterating that the “future is so much in the Indo-Pacific.”
  • Belarus has jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Ales Bialiatski. The democracy and human rights activist was sentenced Friday to 10 years in prison for financing protests, a judgment his supporters say is politically motivated. An outspoken critic of President Alexander Lukashenko, Bialiatski won the international prize in 2022, sharing it with Russian and Ukrainian rights defenders.
  • Two Kansas men were arrested for allegedly trying to evade U.S. trade laws with Russia, the Department of Justice said. The laws restrict the export of avionics technology. “The defendants are charged with conspiracy, exporting controlled goods without a license, falsifying and failing to file electronic export information, and smuggling goods contrary to U.S. law,” the department said. The investigation was coordinated through Task Force KleptoCapture, which is dedicated to enforcing sanctions, export controls and economic countermeasures imposed on Russia due to the war.

From our correspondents

Ukraine uncovers new grave near Bucha, site of alleged Russian atrocities: Ukrainian officials have dug up potential proof of further killings carried out by Russian troops, report Missy Ryan, Kamila Hrabchuk and Alice Martins. The remains of three men were exhumed from an unmarked grave near Bucha after a man who buried them returned to inform authorities about it.

Andriy Nebytov, police chief for the Kyiv region, where Bucha is located, said that residents have been reluctant to report incidents of violence they saw under Russian occupation. “It is difficult to evaluate the actions of people who have experienced such fear,” Nebytov told reporters at the site. “Russians killed and destroyed in front of their eyes, then [residents] buried these people.”

John Hudson reported from New Delhi, Adela Suliman from London, and Andrew Jeong from Seoul. Matt Viser, Robyn Dixon, Natalia Abbakumova and Francesca Ebel contributed to this report.